Too Much Merging?

IN a merger valued at almost $10 billion, Viacom Inc. is the final ``winner'' in its five-month contest to take over Paramount Communications Inc., beating out rival QVC Network Inc. The new company becomes the second largest communications conglomerate in the United States, just behind Time Warner. Shareholders may benefit from the deal. But there is less agreement as to whether the new merger mania in the communications business is in the best interest of the American public.

Communications and entertainment industry mergers and takeovers are becoming as commonplace as winter snowstorms. To cite a few: The Walt Disney Company acquired Miramax Film Corporation; Turner Broadcasting snapped up several smaller film studios. In recent weeks, Seagram Company Ltd., the giant Canadian liquor company, set its sights on mighty Time Warner, which includes Time Magazine. Seagram reportedly wants enough seats on Time Warner's board to give it a major say in the company but not outright ownership.

In pure financial terms, the mergers would not have cleared stockholder hurdles without some advantages for all parties involved - what Wall Street calls ``synergies'' of interest. The mergers are largely driven by a demand for software and content - gaining access to films or other entertainment outlets that will be significant players in future global electronic networks.

Still, consolidation of communications outlets is disquieting. The Viacom-Paramount merger, for example, means that one corporate parent will now control not just Paramount Pictures, but cable networks Showtime, The Movie Channel, VH-1, Nickelodeon, and MTV; Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks basketball team, and the New York Rangers hockey team; publishing houses Simon & Schuster, Prentice Hall, and Pocket Books - plus almost 2,000 neighborhood movie houses. Oh yes, Blockbuster Entertainment, with many video stores around the US, is also associated with Viacom.

How much is enough? Federal regulatory agencies should take a hard look at the ``rush to merge.'' Preserving as many independent voices as possible in the distribution of news and entertainment is in the long-range best interest of the public.

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